Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 86 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Lon Chaney (THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, THE PENALTY, THE UNKNOWN), Mae Busch (FOOLISH WIVES, ALIBI), Matt Moore (COQUETTE, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS), Victor McLaglen (THE INFORMER, GUNGA DIN), Harry Earles (THE WIZARD OF OZ, FREAKS), Edward Connelly (THE SAPHEAD, THE MYSTERIOUS LADY). Directed by Tod Browning (FREAKS, DRACULA, THE UNKNOWN).
Tag-line: "A Metro Goldwyn Picture."
Best one-liner: "If you tip that boob off to who we are, I'll lay some lilies under your chin!"
Though I don't believe he's ever been discussed on this site until today, I'm of the opinion that Lon Chaney might be the greatest actor who ever lived. From his achievements in self-mutilation to his mind-blowing makeup effects to his mastery of the crazy-eye to his portrayals of mad jealousy, mangling frustration, and unfettered pathos; he assembled a vast body of work that really can't be matched for variety, commitment, or poignancy- and half of his films are lost! Most are familiar with his turns in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, but others, such as THE PENALTY, THE UNKNOWN, and HE WHO GETS SLAPPED reveal layers of brilliance that his most iconic films can only hint at. Some of my favorite Chaney anecdotes include:
•his performance in 1927's TELL IT TO THE MARINES was so convincing that the powers that be made him an honorary marine.
•a 1928 murderer claimed that Chaney's performance in LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT was so disturbing that it drove him insane.
•the apparatus worn by Chaney in THE PENALTY to make him appear legless caused permanent muscle damage and was so painful he could only wear it and film for a few minutes at a time before there was the chance he would lose consciousness. Take that, actors' unions!
Regardless, the film at hand is 1925 version of THE UNHOLY THREE. Directed by Tod Browning, who collaborated with Chaney on ten films from 1919-1929, it was later remade (as a sound film) with most of the same principals (including Chaney). While I haven't yet had the chance to see that version, most scholars tend to prefer the original.
The plot is truly whacked-out: a ventriloquist (Chaney), a midget (Harry Earles), and a strongman (Victor McLaglen) escape their day jobs at the carnival in order to perpetuate a long con at a pet shop where they pose as a sweet old lady (Chaney), a baby (Earles), and a regular dude (McLaglen), respectively. I don't wish to reveal too much beyond that, so here are- delightfully out of context- my eight favorite things about THE UNHOLY THREE.
#1. When we first meet Chaney's 'Professor Echo,' he's delighting the crowd with his well-cultured comedic stylings, featuring such rib-ticklers as the following:
It's almost an anti-joke, with a sort of amazing anti-climactic punchline. I love it. Afterward, he tries to sell his illustrious joke-book to the crowd- no wonder he got into a life of crime!
#2. When we first meet Tweedledee the Midget, he's raging on a stage across from Chaney's ventriloquism act. Actor Harry Earles may have the facial resemblance and stature of a baby, but his gnarled, take-no-shit-from-anyone, Edward G. Robinson-style countenance must be seen to be believed.
Then this guy down here, with a smirking little tot upon his shoulder, begins to heckle our dear Tweedledee...
...who commences to–
KICK THE SHIT OUTTA THE KID TILL HE'S BLOODY IN THE FACE AND BEGINS AN ALL-OUT BRAWL!
Now that is a character introduction, ladies and gentlemen. As an asskicker, I suppose that Harry Earles was the Weng Weng of his day.
#3. The leering grin and psychotic gaze of Lon Chaney, whenever he lays out an evil master plan. 'Unholy,' indeed! I believe that the same expression rests upon his face in THE PENALTY when he explains his insanely complex scheme in that film (which involves a sweatshop of women making hats!).
Also: Tod Browning's use of shadow whenever Chaney lays out an evil master plan.
#4. The disguises. While Victor McLaglen just has to take off his Tarzan/Hercules costume and put on some regular clothes, Chaney and Earles undergo complete physical transformations.
Earles sells us on the baby 100%, and as soon as the victims leave the room, he whips out the cigars that he keeps hidden in his diaper and lights one up. Overall, his movements and facial contortions are so uncannily accurate that you'll probably be taking a closer, warier look into the strollers you pass on the street each day. One of them might conceal a murderous jewel thief.
As Granny O'Grady, Chaney combines wig, posture, gesture, and costume (check out those lacy half-gloves!) into a flawless impersonation.
The lengths to which he perfected his gestures become especially evident when, for example, in a scene where a mark looks away and Chaney must accomplish something rapidly, out of character, but still in costume. You- like his unwitting victims- are lulled and have become unaware of the extent of the deception! Also, it's terrific to see him quickly pull off the wig and start yelling at his fellow crooks:
#5. Oh, and did I mention this is a Christmas movie, too?
#6. One of Chaney's cons involves tricking prospective pet shop customers into believing that his deadbeat parrots are of the learned, talkative variety. Of course, being a ventriloquist, he can fool the patrons quite easily. But how to visualize the act of birds 'speaking' in a silent film?...
It's pretty damned great.
#7. The courtroom scene. I won't give away any of the actual proceedings, but suffice to say, it allows for some fine character-acting. The judge, played by Edward Connelly, has that elitist gaunt-faced malice later realized in our era by the likes of Peter Cushing and Angus Scrimm. He's superb.
Chaney, on the other hand, embodies absolute anxiety to perfection.
In silent cinema, so many emotions run purer and freer: here, we can look past the traditional 'will-he-get-caught' pretense and look at Chaney embodying the entire concept of human frustration, the idea of an unscratchable itch. Bravo.
(And as a side note, in THE UNKNOWN, he takes this to a whole new level when he...shall we say... has a rather... disarming epiphany.)
In the end, while THE UNHOLY THREE is by no means my favorite of Chaney's films, or even my most loved of the off-the-deep-end collaborations of Chaney and Browning, it's another fundamental example of the man's genius and a 'gift from the past' of true imagination and unhinged virtuousity. Four and a half stars.